The new Hugh Jackman film The Greatest Showman, a musical tour through the life and entertainment career of the entertainment icon and entrepreneur Phineas Taylor Barnum, pivots around a corps of performers casually known as the “Oddities.” Barnum recruits these sideshow performers, rejected from polite society by reason of their unusual abilities and congenital differences, and they find community and purpose onstage in his American Museum.
Barnum’s global fame indeed did begin with the American Museum, a grand entertainment destination situated at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan, near the modern World Trade Plaza. The Museum, which traced its lineage back to the Tammany Hall cabinets of curiosities, grew under Barnum’s management into a must-see destination: a combination art gallery, dime museum, taxidermy extravaganza, aquarium, theater and menagerie, all available to visitors for a twenty-five-cent admission (children, half price). No less than the Prince of Wales considered it a required stop in New York City.
We have all heard the phrase “an eye for an eye.” The full passage, from The Code of Hammurabi, 2250 B.C.E., reads, “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye.” Less well known are the other ocular codes, including, “If a physician open an abscess (in the eye) of a man with a bronze lancet and destroy the man’s eye, they shall cut off his fingers.”
Ophthalmology, in a way, thus existed in ancient Babylon, meaning that the field is over 4,000 years old. Indeed, the ancient Egyptians detailed the treatment of cataracts and trachoma in papyri dating to 1650 B.C.E.
Hippocrates, the father of all medicine who lived in Greece in 5th century B.C.E., knew of the optic nerve, though he did not understand its function. He described many treatments for maladies of the eye, including restricted diets, hot footbaths and even cutting incisions into the scalp to excise the “morbid humors” of the eye. Galen, whose influence on Western medicine through the 18th century cannot be overstated, wrote two volumes related to ophthalmology, both of which are lost to history. However, his Anatomy and Physiology of the Eye exists to this day and prevailed for nearly 1,500 years after his death in 210 C.E.
As the medievalists among you probably know, #MedievalMondays has drawn to a close. This new blog series, Seeing is Believing, is one of two that will be taking its place. (Stay tuned next month as Caitlin Angelone, our Reference Librarian and Queen of Pamphlets, introduces you to some of our trade ephemera.)
Every other month, I will be scouring our collection for thematically linked material that is interesting to read about but is also interesting to look at. As such, what more fitting topic could be chosen for the inaugural month than the eye, the very vessel of seeing.
Stay tuned to this blog for the introductory post to this month’s topic next Monday 2/2/2018, and follow us on Twitter @CPPHistMedLib where each week this month I will be adding to this brief history of ophthalmology by posting a new image with a link to the full metadata in our Digital Library.
In 1896, statistician Frederick Hoffman confirmed what Charles Darwin and other scientists and doctors had asserted for years: African Americans were going extinct. Within the context of the burgeoning professionalization of the medical field, such a conclusion had the potential to omit African Americans from medical care, especially when combined with the preconceived racial differences of the time. Indeed, white physicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries frequently wrote African Americans off as a lost cause, categorized the race as inherently unhealthy, and refused to treat black patients or used heavy-handed tactics, such as forced vaccinations, to improve black health.
To fight this perception, in 1915 Booker T. Washington inaugurated National Negro Health Week (NNHW), a 35 year public health campaign, and the subject of my dissertation. Washington, and his successor, Robert Moton, ran the Week for its first 15 years out of Tuskegee Institute. After a brief transfer of control to Howard University, the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) decided to take over the Week in 1932. Under the leadership of Roscoe C. Brown, head of the Office of Negro Health Work, the campaign blossomed. Participation estimates increased from 475,000 in 1933 to millions by the mid-1940s as the Week became a National Negro Health Movement and increased its focus on year-round health improvement.
This semester, I began my junior year at the University of the Sciences. After I made my schedule for the semester, I realized how much time I had after my classes ended for the day. I wanted to find an internship opportunity because I have always been able to learn more from working than from sitting in a classroom. As a student in a university environment where science is the main focus, I wanted to spend some time not in a lab, but with history.